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Surprising Kraken in thick of playoff race

Seattle Kraken Jordan Eberle, Alex Wennberg - The Canadian Press

SEATTLE (AP) — When Seattle Kraken general manager Ron Francis strolls into the locker room or goes on the road with the team these days, he sees something that was rare during the franchise's inaugural season: smiles stemming from success on the ice.

The All-Star Break has arrived with the Seattle Kraken sitting atop the Pacific Division and looking toward a possible playoff berth.

"It’s not an easy grind, an 82-game schedule, like we went through last year,” Francis said. “So watching those guys smile a little bit more, have some fun, enjoy being around each other at practice, on the planes and buses, that’s been probably the most gratifying for me.”

After an underwhelming expansion season, Seattle finds itself in the middle of the playoff chase, with a 29-15-5 record, 63 points and a .643 points percentage. The Kraken have enjoyed win streaks of eight and seven games already and have been a better team on the road than at home, a trait that could prove important come playoff time.

The sights and sounds they're enjoying now are what fans and the team had hoped for in Year 1 but came around only infrequently: the amped crowds, the ferry horn blaring Nirvana after goals, the stuffed fish being tossed over the glass and into the arms of fans after victories.

The fact it’s happening in Year 2 is just fine, especially for those who endured last year’s struggles when Seattle won just 27 games and finished with 60 points.

“The second year around, things are a little bit more familiar,” forward Jordan Eberle said. “I hope we’re gaining some traction with the fans and creating new fan base with us winning.”

Seattle is on track for the biggest point increase year-over-year of any franchise during the modern wave of NHL expansion that began with the arrival of San Jose in 1991. The Atlanta Thrashers made a 21-point jump in their second season, going from 39 points to 60 points in Year 2. Yet, that was only a points percentage improvement from .238 to .366.

That was a different era of expansion when rules for early success were less favorable. Still, what the Kraken are on pace to accomplish is noteworthy.

Only once has a team won 29 of its first 49 games and not made the playoffs. That distinction belongs to the 2010-11 Dallas Stars, who started 29-15-5 but ended up 42-29-11 and missed the playoffs by two points.

“We’re not a one-line or one-person dynamic team,” said defenseman Vince Dunn, who has already set a career high in points with 36. “When everyone’s contributing, everyone’s competing and everyone’s sacrificing for each other, that's what wins us games.”

So why has Seattle made such a significant leap? Goals. Lots of them.

Seattle is fifth in the league in goals per game at 3.61 despite ranking 23rd in the league in power-play goals. Seattle also leads the league in overall shooting at 12%.

Last season, Seattle was 29th in goals per game at 2.60. They were 28th in shot percentage at 8.9%, 30th in power-play goals with 32.

St. Louis in 2021-22, Tampa Bay in 2018-19 and Buffalo in 2006-07 are the only teams since 2000 to post a shooting percentage of at least 12% for an entire season — and all three made the playoffs.

The difference for Seattle this season is its depth. Seattle has 14 players with at least 20 points and 12 players with at least eight goals.

While some of Seattle’s bigger names haven’t scored as often, there have been unexpected contributions from others. Daniel Sprong arrived at training camp on a tryout and without a contract. He eventually earned a roster spot and responded by setting career highs in goals (15) and points (28) in just over half the season.

Eeli Tolvanen was waived by Nashville, only to be claimed by Seattle and find a role on the third line for the Kraken. He has scored eight goals in 15 games.

“That’s the story of our year right? The story of our team is somebody stepping up and scoring big goals at the right time,” coach Dave Hakstol said.

The challenge now for Seattle is sustaining this level of play for the final 33 games.

Injuries have started to mount, with Justin Schultz, Jaden Schwartz and All-Star rookie Matty Beniers all missing time just before the break. Beniers is out of NHL All-Star Weekend, replaced by Vegas Golden Knights center Chandler Stephenson.

Beniers, Schultz and Schwartz are expected to return eventually, but the injuries have raised questions about what Seattle might need to do at the trade deadline.


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